Only a fraction of Texans who have lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic have signed up for financial help to pay their electricity bills.
The Public Utility Commission launched an emergency program in March that pays a substantial portion of the power bills of eligible residents. It was designed as short-term assistance, a way for Texans to get back on their feet while much of the Texas economy was closed.
The program also was designed to relieve pressure on retail electricity providers worried that they wouldn’t get paid because utility companies, prompted by regulators, temporarily stopped disconnecting customers who fell behind on payments.
The program suspends disconnections for eligible Texans who buy electricity in deregulated markets such as Houston and Dallas, and who sign up for payment plans with their electricity providers. It is funded by a special charge of 0.033 cents per kilowatt hour added to electricity bills, about 40 cents for residential customers who use 1,200 kilowatt hours of electricity per month.
The 76,000 Texans who enrolled on their own, however, may regret signing up for the program because they also likely agreed to what’s known as a “switch hold.” That means that they can’t change providers until they pay off their old bills, a restriction permitted under Public Utility Commission rules.
“The timing here is really bad,” said Tim Morstad, associate state director for the advocacy group for older people AARP Texas.
“Switch-holds are really nasty during normal times but are especially devastating when thousands of Texans are facing unemployment and the worst heat of summer,” he said.